The unprecedented natural forces experienced in the last few weeks, especially in the south, have brought the issue of climate change back on the agendas of the media, decision makers and engineers.
Up until recently, managing railway assets like embankments, bridges and sea walls, would not be something you’d seek to lead with on the national news, just something for some geeky engineers. They are all structures built and maintained by experts, and we take them for granted.
However, those incredible aerial shots of a First Great Western HST triumphantly but tentatively crossing what appeared to be a giant lake in Somerset, and the tracks at Dawlish dangling and waving in the wind having had the wall they were sitting on washed away by waves, changed all that. Not only did it show how important the railway is in connecting communities, but also the role it played in helping to protect those same communities from the impact of extreme weather.

What is the rail industry doing to tackle this?

Britain’s climate is perhaps unique; influenced by the Gulf Stream and by the European land mass it exhibits such variations in climate and weather patterns that even its world-renowned Met Office has been known to comment how ‘The Uk has just experienced its weirdest weather on record’. This statement came after the driest spring for more than a century gave way to the wettest recorded April to June in 2012 in a dramatic turnaround never before documented. And while some people still debate the causes and development of climate change, there is no denying that the climate has changed and will continue to change in the long- term, and that evidence suggests that the frequency of extreme weather events in the UK will continue to rise now and in the future. Such weather could be rain and flooding as seen recently, but it can also be snow, wind, more direct sunlight and heat, indeed any type of weather.

Is today’s extreme weather going to be tomorrow’s normal weather?

The question is, what impact will this have on railway assets and operations? How can we plan ahead and make the right decisions about where to invest in protecting assets, such as infrastructure and rolling stock, before the point of absolute failure, such as that witnessed at Dawlish in January?
What weather impacts will need to be designed for long-life infrastructure like a coastal railway? Will we still get cold winters? How will earthworks fare in long dry spells in the future? How will this impact the overhead conductor line performance and track geometry? How should design and maintenance specifications for electronic equipment need to change if it will be renewed in ten years? How will train staff cope with the heat? Are current track installation and maintenance standards and systems appropriate for the 2050’s?
The issues are taken seriously by rail industry leaders and form part of the scene setting in the Rail Technical Strategy. Network Rail, train operating companies, rolling stock companies and suppliers, together on the Technical Strategy Leadership Group (TSLG) are sponsoring RSSB and Network Rail to continue an ambitious programme of jointly funded research.
The work is collated under the banner Tomorrow’s Railway and Climate Change Adaptation (TRaCCA), and aims to answer some of the more difficult questions facing railway organisations when setting longer-term policy objectives. The first tranche (ref T925) was published back in November 2011. This first step was really about getting to know what we didn’t know. It provided information on the potential vulnerability of the GB railway to projected climate change, and where possible, indications of the change in risks. The study highlighted the significance of the identified research and knowledge gaps to the understanding of climate change impacts and the consequential constraints to making decisions for investment and management of the railway.
Armed with a better picture of the issues facing the railway, TRaCCA
entered its second phase with a more comprehensive piece of work worth £2.5 million (ref T1009) to begin developing support tools to assist delivery of increased weather and climate resilience of the GB railway.
Specific aims of the TRaCCA programme include:
• facilitating an early step-change in improving railway performance and reducing disruption costs
• providing help for local managers as soon as practicable, such as hotspot mapping and decision support tools, to aid improved weather resilience
• enabling targeted investment in operational and adaptation measures over a long (30 year) time period
• identifying adaptation and resilience best practice from overseas railways, particularly in locations where the climate today is analogous to the climate GB railways will face in the future
• fostering a systems-wide approach by signposting and disseminating knowledge that currently might be residing across the industry in ‘functional silos’
• providing long-term sustainable support by building an appropriate skills base through links to academic institutions, staff training and the provision of staff recruitment opportunities for the rail sector.

This first phase of the T1009 work is being supported by an Arup-led consortium, which includes the University of Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, the Met Office, the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA) and JBA Consulting. The Consortium is working closely with RSSB, Network Rail and other railway organisations.
This package of work has built on the 2011 work, being chiefly about identifying climate change and weather resilience knowledge so as to identify gaps affecting delivery of the TRaCCA aims and to direct a longer-term set of work.

looking overseas

The research is shortly to look overseas, to identify countries facing similar climate issues and weather problems, as well as putting together guidance on standards, exemplar case studies, and pilot testing new concepts, such as ‘system of system’ decision tools, weather/infrastructure metrics and guidance on policy, operations and engineering. As some questions are likely to be complicated, we are also looking at ‘deep dive’ analyses as a later part of this work.
We now have more knowledge than we had before. We have a compendium of research on climate change impacts and information on weather resilience management relevant to the GB railway, and we’re in the process of opening up this knowledge to share with others.
TRaCCA is still in its early stages, but the wide cross-industry liaison, the increased interest in weather resilience brought about by recent unusual
weather patterns, and the mention of the programme in the Uk government’s statutory National Adaptation Programme, all indicate a growing momentum that will culminate in some of the most advanced understanding of climate and weather resilience on any railway network in the world.